We here at the 5 Minute Librarian try to write for every type of librarian, from children's services through academia, and everything in between. We know that the world of librarianship is vast and varied, and we are but three people. As such, we have decided to speak to some librarians in other areas, and learn more about their particular specialties. This week, we reached out to the phenomenal Tina McEvoy, who works as the Assistant Director and Reference Librarian at the Lawrence Library in Pepperell, MA, to talk to us about her job, and what you might need to know if you aspire to be as awesome as she is.
So You Want to Work at a Public Library Reference Desk
I've worked at various reference desks, from community college and university libraries to small town public libraries, over the past 20 years. While some things have changed dramatically in that time (hello online databases!), many of the basics have remained constant. I'm going to assume that anyone looking for reference work is already a Google ninja and database super user. If you're not, you need to be!
This list is geared toward working in a public library. Everything on it is applicable to working in a college or university library as well, but academic libraries have the exciting extra challenges of faculty, course reserves, and incoming freshmen.
This is what I would tell anyone new to reference work:
Know Your Community
- If you are working in a town where you do not live, familiarize yourself with the geography of the community – where are the schools, stores, gas stations, post office, cemeteries, nearest hospital, etc. What towns are nearby? How do you get to the highway? What local newspapers are there? Is there a business association? Senior Center? Preschools? You should be able to answer any type of “Where is the ...” question quickly.
- Beyond the physical aspects of the community, you should find out more about who lives there. Check out the town demographics for a idea of the population makeup. Are there a lot of children, or maybe seniors? Do most people own a single family house, or rent an apartment? What is the average level of education and income? What languages are spoken at home? What industries do people work in? Is there a large military presence? Then, pay attention to who comes in the building. Get to know the regulars – who's going to need help on the computers, who likes to see the newest mysteries, who wants you to save the coupon inserts from the newspapers. This makes the patrons feel welcome and wanted, and goes a long way to forging good feelings about the library in the community.
- If the town has any interesting history (famous residents, important businesses, Revolutionary War ties, etc.) read up on it! You must be able to hold your own in conversation with the town history buff, or the genealogy researchers who just arrived from Kansas to learn about their ancestor who was at Bunker Hill.
Know Your Building
- Be prepared to give impromptu tours of the building to new patrons or out of town visitors. Know when it was built, and by whom. Have a few interesting things to point out to people, or favorite spots for reading. Know what events are going on that day/week/month.
Know Your Collection
- Know your fiction and nonfiction collection. This is really, really important. I rarely ever use print reference material any more, and have drastically weeded the reference collection at my library, but I am always helping people find circulating nonfiction books to fill their needs. Walk the stacks as often as you can (offering roving reference help as you go!), and keep an eye on the reshelving carts. If you participate in collection development, you'll already have a good idea of what your collection has and what is new, if you don't do collection development then pop in to the cataloging area to see what's coming in. Make a note of what areas you have good coverage for, and what areas need help. You should be able to go right to the area for a particular topic, and have a good idea of what you're going to find there. For fiction, it's always helpful to have a few suggestions ready to go for that patron who just wants “something good to read”, even if reader's advisory is not usually your job.
Know Your Patron
- The patron will not usually ask for what they actually want/need (i.e., the customer is never right.) You need to nail the reference interview. The first question I always ask is “are you asking for someone else, or yourself?” Then I try to find out what they need the information for. So, someone comes in and asks where we keep the dog books. I could just tell them 636.7, or I could investigate more. Maybe they're looking for books on puppy training or different breeds – or maybe they're looking for a memoir about a guy who drove across the country with his dog that they saw on the Today show. If they are looking for a specific book, don't assume they have the title or author right. I always check first in Amazon, Ingram, or even Wikipedia to verify what it is first, then search my catalog.
- Keep in mind the types of questions that you can't answer (legal, medical) , and do not provide any more information than referrals to the proper professionals to answer those questions.
Know When to Teach and When to Do
- Know when to take the opportunity to teach someone how to do something, and when to just do it for them. If you have a parent with a child, and the parent is asking all the questions for the child, try to speak directly to the child. Make eye contact. Show them how you are searching the catalog, and then how to find something in the stacks. If you have a person who needs a certain tax form but has never used a computer you should ask them – do you want me to show you how to do it, or would you like me to just print it for you? If you, and the patron, have the time it can be a great opportunity to teach someone a new, useful skill – or you can make their day by having what they need in their hand in just a minute!
Know Your Technology
- You had better be able to clear a paper jam and change the toner, but you should also how to clear the printer queue, where to find the wifi printer's IP and then what to do with it. Know how to download ebooks through whatever system your library uses, but don't feel like you have to know how to use every different mobile device. Use social media to promote your library and reach out to patrons. Know how to use your projector, A/V equipment, fax machine, scanner, video game consoles, etc.
- Read the local news. Know what's going on in the town and state.
- Be prepared for constant interruptions – plan your work in short chunks, and keep lists. I find that reading book reviews, ordering books, and working on fliers are good tasks to do at the reference desk.
- Project confidence – you don't have to know all the answers, you just have to be willing to look for them!
- Respect your patrons and their right to privacy. Tempting as it may be, do not post hilarious stories about your weird patrons on social media. Don't gossip about them to your coworkers. Your patrons should be able to count on confidentiality.
- Learn how to disengage from overly chatty patrons. Have a plan for getting away from that patron who treats you like a bartender/therapist - “It's been nice seeing you, Sally, but I've got to get these papers over to the director!”
Tina McEvoy is the Assistant Director at the Lawrence Library in Pepperell, MA. She started her career as a periodicals acquisitions assistant, and then she caught a lucky break when she was offered one shift a week at the reference desk!
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